Hampstead Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reviving plays that premiered there, and for its retrospective on the '90s the play chosen is Philip Ridley's The Fastest Clock in the Universe. In a crumbling flat above a derelict fur coat factory, Cougar Glass (Alec Newman) is preparing to celebrate his 19th birthday - he's been celebrating it for over a decade and if it even looks as if someone might mention his real age, Cougar goes into a violent fit. Finbar Lynch is excellent as Captain Tock, the older, bald-with-a-combover friend who tends to Cougar's every whim and seems to view him with a combination of obsession and loathing. The birthday parties always go the same way: Cougar has been grooming a pretty young boy for some weeks, and now plans to get him drunk and seduce him. But tonight is different, not only because the lengths he's gone to this time are particularly despicable, but also because when Foxtrot Darling (Neet Mohan) arrives, he unexpectedly brings along his pregnant girlfriend Sherbet Gravel (Jaime Winstone) and things take a nasty turn.
It's clearly not going to be for everyone (two women behind me were tutting at the interval) but this dark and often funny play has a lot to recommend it, notably in Ridley's use of language and imagery (reflected in Mark Thompson's set design filled with stuffed birds) which tracks Cougar's obsession with pretending that the process of ageing isn't happening, by juxtaposing a lot of dialogue filled with images of decay. There's also plenty of odd touches, most memorably in the way Cougar's fits of violence are cured - his elderly neighbour Cheetah Bee (Eileen Page) has to recite a ritual comparing her great age to his youth, which comes across like a sort of magic spell. And of course the character names, which are at the same time utterly bizarre, but used casually in the play come across as oddly plausible. Edward Dick's production also features great performances from all his cast (especially Winstone, which I wasn't quite expecting,) and while there's plenty of gore and shock value, the play actually ends with a surprisingly sweet-natured moral to the story as the title is finally explained.
I seem to go through waves of catching post-show discussions, and there was another one tonight with the cast, Ridley and Dick. Interesting this time around was the fact that Ridley actually started as an artist in the Damien Hirst mode, and his insights on how he appproaches writing from that perspective were something a bit different. On a shallow note, it was nice to be able to look at the ridiculously attractive Neet Mohan dressed in his own clothes, and not feel guilty about looking at him wearing school uniform (Foxtrot is meant to be 15, but what with some of the things he has to do on stage it's not surprising they cast an older actor.)
The Fastest Clock in the Universe by Philip Ridley is booking until the 17th of October at the Hampstead Theatre.